By Sandi Durell
There’s no doubt that Ben Vereen is an icon in the world of music – a Broadway star who is unforgettable (Pippin, Wicked, Chicago, Hair etc. etc.). It’s always grand to see him on a stage anywhere and now he has returned to Feinstein’s/54 Below with this latest rendition of things new, together with old chestnuts we treasure and crave hearing.
No matter how we fight it, age catches up and unfortunately Mr. Vereen, struggling with long time back problems, found himself going through the paces last year with lumbar issues – shots, MRIs and the likes necessitating several back operations, keeping him in rehab this past summer. But, fighter that he is, nothing can keep him from doing what he loves most. And so on opening night on November 21, there he was reminiscing and regaling his loving audience from his “Corner of the Sky” (Pippin – Stephen Schwartz).
Doesn’t matter that he sat in a high chair for most of his performance. The man is capable of doing anything and did, as he morphed from song to song including many of his favorites – “Aquarius” (Hair – Rado, Ragni, MacDermot) and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (Jesus Christ Superstar – Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice) with great dramatic insight. And, as I like to note, he’s dancing even when he’s sitting down.
Vereen is a fine actor with loads of emotions that emerge as in Aznavour’s “I Didn’t See the Time Go By.” Then his heart stirs and he’s “Defying Gravity” (Wicked – Stephen Schwartz) in rockin’ rhythm.
Adding to this feel good evening were some of Mr. Vereen’s talented friends including Jesse Lenat on guitar whom he met on his Amazon hit series Sneaky Pete; a most amazing violinist Lee England Jr. (Jimmy Kimmel Live) who blew everyone away with his unique stylings and embellishments; and wonderful soaring singer Nita Whitaker (Star Search Winner, Ragime) who will be seen in the upcoming Born For This.
Having some fun with the great Sammy Davis Jr’s iconic “Candy Man,” he segued into “ What Kind of Fool Am I” (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley) slow and easy, building up to a swingin’ “Birth of the Blues” (Ray Henderson, Buddy DeSylva/Lou Brown).
Ben Vereen is intent when it comes to the arts and showed his staunchness in “Stand By Me (Stand Up for the Arts) – Ben E. King, Leiber & Stoller with additional poignant lyrics by Ben Vereen, as the entire room stood up in rhythm.
His band of renown included Musical Director/Keyboard David Loeb, with Marc Dicciani on drums, Mike Boone on bass, Jesse Lenat on guitar and his son Aaron on percussion.
An important lasting thought from the spiritual, heartfelt Ben Vereen: we just have to show up in our lives!
And you have to show up to have this fulfilling experience while Ben Vereen is at 54 Below on November 22, 24 and 25 at 7 pm, or November 23 at 8 pm
Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54 Street (cellar) NYC 646 476-3551